The recent Supreme Court health care decision was striking in many ways, but perhaps most of all, for its dramatic separation of constitutional and policy questions.
If the decision was in any way a bellwether, it might be that in these times, the best outcomes are produced when process and policy are distinguished from one another. As was evident in the outcry over Justice John Roberts’ unexpected turn, making this distinction can disrupt partisan convention--and that’s a good thing!
The independent movement and independent voters value that distinction. Now 40 percent of the country, independents are as concerned with the process as they are with the policy. They became independents because parties and partisanship have driven policy making to the brink of dysfunction.
Independents increasingly feel that the political decision-making structure must be substantially reformed as a means of engaging our social and economic crisis.
Open or "Top Two" primaries, putting independents on the Federal Election Commission, establishing benchmarks for nonpartisan governance, and reducing the hegemony of the parties over the people are examples of this kind of approach.
Though the parties have demanded First Amendment protections in controlling the primary process and excluding independent voters, California and Washington State have already shifted to a “Top Two” nonpartisan system to solve the constitutional problem. Other states, like Arizona, are in the process of following suit.
Though in 2008 independents were permitted to vote in presidential primaries and caucuses in 33 states and made full use of that opportunity, elections for public office below the presidency are far more restricted.
Only 25 states have laws permitting independents to vote in non-presidential primaries, and that permission is often dependent on the parties agreeing to accept nonaligned voters.
Currently, there are efforts underway to roll back open primaries in states that have them. Independent voters are challenging that regression in court. This has given rise to a new set of constitutional controversies over party rights versus voter rights. Efforts at nonpartisan reform of the closed systems have met with fierce hostility from the political parties—both major and, surprisingly, minor.
Some might say that independents, the 40 percent of voters not fully integrated into the political system, are simply the next group of Americans to be unfairly excluded.
In other words, independents’ demand for equality should be seen as a classic civil rights issue. But there is a difference worth noting. The diverse interests that fought to win inclusion in political affairs and thus came to be represented by political parties were largely defined by existential factors.
Black people did not choose to be black (not to mention slaves). Women were excluded because of their gender. The poor and workingmen and women could not escape their economic and social status for most of history. These interests were defined by a combination of biology, economics, and fortune or misfortune.
Their integration into the political process was part of America’s social and economic growth, as the expansion, distribution, and redistribution of the fruits of American labor and enterprise were continually negotiated. Political parties—including third parties—played a vigorous role in that.
Fairness and economic strength were thought to be intrinsically intertwined. Today, the dominant parties seem incapable of synthesizing these things. And the structural partisanship they have engineered forms, if anything, an insurmountable obstacle to progress.
Independents, while a vast underrepresented community of Americans, are not a political class that forms as a matter of destiny. They have chosen this identity, and thereby made a small but distinct declaration of noncompliance. Arguably, they are a social engine for political reform that goes beyond parties, partisanship, and traditional ideology. In this respect, independents are, by their choice, radicals—nonideological radicals, but radicals just the same.
Jacqueline Salit is the author of Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America (Palgrave Macmillan). She is president of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independents with organization in 40 states. For more info: www.jackiesalit.com.